What is FOIA?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal U.S. law that allows for the disclosure of government records upon request.
You have likely at least heard of the Freedom of Information Act, but if you are not familiar with how it works, you may be surprised to learn just how far and wide it reaches.
- Any information, any format: FOIA provides access to government records, which it essentially defines as any information that is stored in any format. That includes everything from official documents and reports to Excel spreadsheets, emails, phone call recordings, surveillance camera footage, and much more. The only records that will not be released are those that fall within a narrow list of common sense exemptions / exclusions.
- Any amount: A FOIA request cannot be denied because it is asking for “too much.” As long as the request is well-described, it is entirely permitted to request a copy of an entire database, for example.
- Any level of government: Technically, FOIA applies only to federal government agencies. However, every state has it’s own version of FOIA, which applies to every level of government: state, city, and local.
- Any phrasing: The actual process of making a FOIA request is incredibly easy. It involves no formal process and no special legal wording. It’s as simple as sending a letter/fax/email that explains in plain English the information you want. Though I don’t recommend it, there are even stories of people submitting FOIA requests hand-written on toilet paper (as told in The Art of Access).
For more information see: How to Make a Freedom of Information Act Request.
Why does FOIA matter?
McKinsey estimates that open data has the potential generate business value of more than $3 trillion a year!
Our research suggests that seven sectors alone could generate more than $3 trillion a year in additional value as a result of open data, which is already giving rise to hundreds of entrepreneurial businesses and helping established companies to segment markets, define new products and services, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.
What does this mean for FOIA?
FOIA can be thought of as open data’s unpolished, underappreciated cousin. It takes more time and work to acquire a dataset through FOIA than it does to download one from data.gov. And it’s likely the FOIA data will also require some reformatting and cleaning. But ultimately, the final product is just as valuable.
What is FOIA Mapper?
So, there is a universe of valuable information sitting in offline government databases. And in theory, everyone has the right to access that information by request. The catch is that most government databases are not documented online, so there is no practical way of knowing what to ask for.
FOIA Mapper aims to solve this problem by collecting information about these opaque offline databases and organizing it into a searchable catalog – a search engine for offline government data.
Search FOIA Mapper by keyword and it will return a list of what information exists, which government agencies have it, the format in which it is stored, and how to request the information using the Freedom of Information Act.
For more information see: What is a Government Record System?
Why does the search page have two search forms?
FOIA Mapper also allows you to search a database of past FOIA requests made by other people and news organizations.
To see what information other people are requesting, go to the Search by Keyword page and enter a keyword into the FOIA Log search.
You can search the FOIA logs by topic (for example, Donald Trump).
Or you can search for the name of an individual or new organization to see what information they have requested (for example, Buzzfeed).
To see how this information can be helpful see: What is a FOIA Log?
Who am I and why did I make this website?
I’m Max Galka. FOIA Mapper was created by me, with support from the Knight Foundation.
I am an entrepreneur and independent data journalist. In my professional life, I have had the opportunity to take on many different roles across a range of industries. And in every case, I have found the Freedom of Information Act to be a valuable resource. I have used it to help model natural disasters, to help assess the quality of life in urban neighborhoods, and for one-off topics to write about or to use in data-driven graphics (for example, I used FOIA to make these filming location maps).
In my opinion, FOIA is a gigantic untapped resource that is unfortunately inaccessible for anyone who doesn’t have the time or patience to wade through reams of government records looking for a needle in a haystack.
The goal of FOIA Mapper is to change that, and make Freedom of Information accessible to a wider audience.
FOIA Mapper is a work in progress, and it needs your feedback to grow. What would make FOIA Mapper more useful to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.